Open plan offices have become a staple of the modern working environment, with over 80% of US businesses using it as their preferred office arrangement. Some of the world’s leading organizations have transitioned from private to open, including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, freeing themselves from floor plans of cubicles, high partitions and closed workspaces. While research has proven the open plan office has many benefits, specifically for those organizations looking to boost innovation and creativity, the effectiveness of these spaces has been in question for years. Studies have shown a direct correlation and contribution to staff absenteeism and reduced levels of productivity, causing a great deal of press about whether the positives of open layouts outweigh the negatives. As our youngest generations continue to push for open plan concepts and organizations rush to implement them in hopes of attracting and retaining talent, it is critical that we gain a comprehensive understanding of our workforce and the tools they need for maximum productivity. Let’s dive into the pros and cons of open layouts and how design strategies can create a balanced workspace that is tailored to an organization and its needs.
The Open Office Debate
The open office concept popularized more than a decade ago, gaining traction in the early 2000s as technology untethered employees from their desks and allowed for mobility. Enhanced planning models and advancements in technology have dramatically changed the nature of our work and the layout of our spaces since that time. Modern workplaces have transitioned from private to transparent, substituting cubicles and private offices for benching and communal tables. While every office structure will have its pros and cons, recent press questioning open office efficiency has left us debating whether the positives truly do outweigh the negatives. For those unfamiliar with findings of recent research, here’s what we know about how the open plan office has fared.
Pros of the Open Office
Positive attributes of the open office can include:
- Increased Communication and Collaboration
- Elimination of Barriers
- Better Aesthetics (natural light and views to the outdoors)
For most companies embracing the open office trend, communication and collaboration among employees are essential to organizational success. Traditional offices and sectionalized square footage can hinder communication as employees come to work, keep to themselves within their offices and go home. By eliminating physical barriers and providing collaborative tools, employees are both encouraged and forced to interact with one another, creating a culture that is conducive to creativity, support and a strong sense of community. Additional factors such as cost savings and the attraction of Millennials and Generation Z workers also weigh heavily for companies. The open office concept boasts a great deal of flexibility in layout, appealing to our youngest generations and their desire for mobility. Space can be utilized regardless of size to maximize productivity. Rather than having to set aside a specific square footage for every cubicle or office, employees can find a spot at a communal bench or unassigned workstation when on location. Given these many benefits and options, it comes as no surprise a vast majority of today’s organizations have taken advantage of the ongoing open office trend.
Cons of the Open Office
Negative attributes of the open office can include:
- Lack of Privacy
- Decreased Productivity
- Increased Employee Stress
Negative press on the open office trend often revolves around the lack of noise control and its disruptive effect on office morale. Research suggests that distractions within open layouts sabotage employee focus, decreasing productivity anywhere from 15% to 28%. The constant communication in these environments can often have the opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of collaborating face-to-face, employees hide at their desks or in corners with their headphones on in hopes of fighting through the noise to get work done. Harvard Business School recently studied a Fortune 500 office setting before and after an open plan renovation and found that staffers spent 72% less time interacting in person and 56% percent more time sending email. Despite the rising popularity of open offices, these significant drawbacks can be detrimental to individual and organizational success. Since this research doesn’t negate the open office’s strengths and this workplace trend shows no signs of slowing down, what can be done to reduce the negative repercussions of open settings?
Designing for Success in an Open Office
Modern organizations are rushing to implement trendy open office spaces in hopes of attracting and retaining talent, encouraging cross-functional collaboration and accelerating creativity and innovation. Does it work? Sometimes. But, sometimes it does not. Where they often fall short is thinking that there is a one-size-fits-all space layout that will work best for everyone. No two employees or companies are the same so how could there be a single design formula for success? Gensler’s 2016 US Workplace Survey reminds us that variation within design is what truly matters. The study compared the effectiveness of a wide spectrum of space types, including individual offices, shared offices, high/medium/low panel spaces and bench seating. Results indicated that degree of open or enclosed didn’t matter in high-performing work environments. If the space was designed to function well, all types were rated as equally effective. An open plan can be just as effective as a private one when we invest in our employees and design for their unique needs.
“Office space can be analogous to shoes in that you may be wearing the wrong pair. If you put the wrong pair or the wrong size on – there is no question you’re going to, at best, be a little uncomfortable or, at the worst, in pain with the shoes not appropriate for your activities. You don’t go running in high-heels – office space is not much different – don’t do your work in the wrong space.”
Bob Fox, Work Design Magazine Publisher
How does a company know if an open office layout is the right workspace solution for its employees? A design firm or workplace strategist, like Corporate Design Interiors, is a great place to start. Today’s workplace is anything but static and its design elements and space solutions need to be varied enough to accommodate a wide range of needs while also being able to change rapidly. Working with a design firm can help an organization identify its unique DNA and the needs of its people.
Image Source: Office Snapshots, Gary Lee Partners in Chicago
Open office essentials, including a mixture of collaborative and private spaces, acoustic solutions for noise control and integrated technology for autonomy, will ensure employees are able to harness the benefits of their layout while eliminating common negative effects. From there, the work environment can be tailored to meet an organization’s specific needs and tools that foster engagement, satisfaction and productivity can be implemented. Take a moment to consider how roles vary within an organization and its various departments. A technology team member may see little to no need for collaborative design elements, while a sales associate spends more time within conference rooms than at their own desk. In order to build a successful open office, the needs of each organizational subculture must be taken into account. Planning for an adequate number of collaborative spaces, privacy areas and hospitality hubs will ensure individuals and groups have the tools they need to for an optimal experience – mentally, physically and technologically. The workplace must be a direct reflection of an organization (its brand and culture) and its people, and whether you are building from the ground up or renovating an existing space, teaming up with a design firm will guarantee that you are creating a workplace environment that is relevant to your unique needs, fostering innovation and productivity for all.
The Future of the Open Office
While we can’t predict the future of the open plan office, we can certainly tailor it to fit the evolving needs of organizations and the people behind them. Reaching out to a design firm that specializes in workplace strategies will ensure that the necessary steps are taken in creating a balanced, open layout the embraces the unique needs of your employees. Follow the link below to contact a member of the Corporate Design Interiors’ team for additional information on designing your successful open office today.
Featured Image and All Untagged Photos: Office Snapshots, Confidential Client in Sydney
Corporate Design Interiors (CDI) is an industry-leading commercial furniture dealership whose award-winning product knowledge, thoughtful design coupled with strategic planning deliver functional and inspiring interiors designed to foster employee well-being, productivity and engagement. CDI’s relentless focus on delivering positive workplaces mirroring the culture and vision of companies while delivering a high value investment has earned CDI diverse clients including; established Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits/public sector and energetic startups.
As a “Select” Kimball dealer, CDI’s excellence in sales, partnership, quality improvement, community involvement and overall business best practices earned it the 2017 Kimball Premier Partner Award. CDI was selected among 52 other Kimball Select dealerships throughout the country for this industry-leading honor, earning additional praise for its company culture and enterprise practices.
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1711 Paramount Ct., Waukesha, WI 53186